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Restocking the global pantry

  • 04 July 2008
The outcome of the recent World Food Summit attracted little reporting in the Australian media. Unfortunately the focus as usual was on personalities, notably the attendance of Presidents Mugabe and Ahmadi-nejad. Otherwise it was not seen as especially newsworthy.

To expect the Rome summit to reach concrete plans of action is to misunderstand the function of this kind of global conference. Its importance lay in the fact that its purpose was to bring home to national leaders two things. First that feeding the world population in the coming decades is as big a challenge as sufficiently constraining global greenhouse gas emissions. Second, that the two issues are connected.

Over the last 30 years investment in agriculture in developing countries has fallen away. Official development assistance to the agricultural sector fell from about 18 per cent of total aid to around 3.5 per cent in 2004. Other sectors such as 'security', governance and democratisation became more fashionable.

Donors and recipients have forgotten that the foundation of economic development in poor countries remains a sustained rise in agricultural productivity. For most of the last 30 years food has been cheap and stocks high. Surpluses in developed countries meant food aid was abundant. The consequence for some food deficit poor countries was a preferential shift in demand for imported wheat and rice in place of traditional staples.

With food stocks falling food aid is a diminishing resource. The United Nations World Food Program reports food aid deliveries in 2007 fell by 15 per cent to 5.9 million tons, their lowest level since records began in 1961. As a consequence it has become difficult even to supply sufficient food to the victims of natural disasters and those displaced by armed conflict.

Quite correctly the Rome meeting did not emphasise food aid as such, though it did refer to the need for the relevant UN agencies to be assured of the 'resources', that is, cash or food aid, to 'enhance safety net programs through local or regional purchase of food'.

Some of the same adverse effects of climate change on agricultural output that we worry about in Australia are beginning to be evident also in much of Africa and Asia. Appropriately the Summit saw it as 'essential to address the fundamental question of how to increase the resilience of present food production systems to challenges posed by climate change'.

To that end it called for